January 27, 2023
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Originally published 19th

The number of influenza cases reached its highest level in early December in a decade. COVID-19 is on the rise again. A surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) diagnoses is causing overcrowding in pediatric emergency rooms.

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And yet, studies show that teachers may not stay at home when they are sick.

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As public health experts worry about a brutal winter of disease, especially elementary schools, which are notorious breeding grounds for germs, are becoming increasingly depleted. Waves of contagion are forcing some districts to temporarily transition to remote learning until enough students and teachers feel well enough to return to the classroom. The additional COVID-related sick leave that many teachers received during the height of the pandemic is no longer available in many places.

But the poll data shared with The 19th by Research Center “Education Week”, a study of national education policy, shows that even with the spread of viruses in the classroom, teachers, especially primary school teachers, mostly go to work even when they are sick. A lot of people say that staying out of class is too hard.

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“There is a lot of virus circulating, and therefore more people will be at risk,” said Jennifer Cates, senior vice president and global health expert at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. “Getting out of the situation is really important from a public health standpoint – we know it, and we know it more than ever. The difficulty lies in the fact that there are many real and perceived obstacles to this.”

Teachers, mostly women, are more likely than the general population to receive sick pay. But as the data show, this is not enough.

“I try not to use sick days unless I’m on my deathbed,” a Wisconsin elementary school teacher wrote, according to survey responses. “More work on the street than at school. In addition, they pull me to replace when others are sick. ”

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“I try not to take a day off unless it’s COVID-19 or I’m really sick and unable to move because I don’t want my students to be distracted from their school routine,” wrote another elementary school teacher in Texas who works in special education.

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“We don’t have money for substitutes, so teachers come even when they are sick,” wrote an elementary school teacher from Washington.

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And from an elementary school teacher in New Mexico: “I always hate taking sick days because it takes too much work to be away.”

According to a nationwide survey conducted in late October and early November by the Education Week Research Center, across grade levels, only one in four teachers reported taking sick leave if they felt unwell. Meanwhile, 35 percent of teachers said they try not to take the day off unless they have COVID-19 or if they “can’t get out of bed.” Primary school teachers were even less likely to stay at home, according to the data. About 49 percent said they avoid taking sick leave unless absolutely necessary.

The data isn’t surprising, says Holly Kurtz, director of research at Education Week. People were generally advised to stay at home if they tested positive for COVID-19. But that post has apparently not been repurposed to talk about how people deal with other viral infections like the flu or RSV.

Meanwhile, the pressure on teachers remains acute. There has been a shortage of substitute teachers for years, and this problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic. And staff teachers, burned out from teaching because of the health crisis, are increasingly leaving. Particularly in elementary school, students are often too small to work without the active supervision of an instructor.

“Even if they paid sick leave, [teachers] worrying about students falling behind and worrying about burdening their colleagues,” Kurtz said.

The consequences are important not only for teachers, but also for parents, said Cates, who has a son of primary school age. If school workers are unable to use their sick leave, this increases the chance of further spread of viruses. If her son gets sick at school, she can work from home and take care of him. But, she added, not all parents have that flexibility.

“This is a challenge that we as a society have failed to meet,” she said.

Rachel Thomas, a high school English teacher in Washington, D.C., has not yet fallen ill this year. Noticing that her colleagues were getting sick and more students were staying at home with the sick, she resumed wearing the mask in the school building, an old building where she worries about ventilation.

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According to her, if she gets sick, she will stay at home and will not go to work until she feels better. This approach is encouraged by the leaders of her school. But she recalled working at other schools where, even if the teachers paid sick leave, they tended to go to work anyway.

“It’s a culture in education because we understand that there are limited substitutes,” she said. “You just have to be patient.”

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